Drinking from the Cup
Early on in Mark’s gospel, Jesus had nicknamed James and John. No longer just the sons of Zebedee, for Jesus, they were now “Sons of Thunder,” Boanerges. (3:17). They’d lived up to it, too. Listen to John: “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us” (Mark 10:38). Luke repeats this story and adds another report as well. Here are both brothers in chorus: When the disciples James and John saw this they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” (Lk 9:54).
Along with the other nicknamed disciple – Simon, who became Rock, or Peter – James and John had been with Jesus when he’d raised a little girl from the dead (Mark 5: 37). Not much before this incident, they had been present when he’d conversed with Moses and Elijah on the Mount of the Transfiguration (Mark 9: 2-8). It’s not too farfetched to think that the words of the voice from heaven -- “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (v.7) – could still have been ringing in their ears when they made the demands we hear in today’s gospel: "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. . . Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left" (10: 35, 37). And we know, too, that James and John had also been present for Jesus’ three predictions of his imminent passion, death and resurrection.
And yet, all of this seems to have fallen not only on deaf ears but on blind eyes as well, a point that Mark underlines ironically by placing the story of the blind beggar Bartimaeus immediately after this morning’s pericope. Unlike James and John – not to mention the other disciples – the blind man knows exactly who Jesus is and what he wants from him when he tells Jesus: “Master, I want to see” (v. 51). From Mark’s point of view, the Sons of Thunder should have taken a leaf out of Bartimaeus’ book.
But Mark’s purpose isn’t simply to underscore (again) the obtuseness of the disciples. The pushy thunder of James’ and John’s demand makes them look bad, of course, but it also acts as a kind of foil. It gives Jesus a chance to lay out (again) the way to understand the meaning of the kingdom he has been preaching since the start of his ministry, a ministry he has shared with the disciples since first he called them away from their nets (Mark 1: 16-20). In his answer to James and John, Jesus makes three points:
- A place in the Kingdom will demand suffering (vv. 38-39).
- Jesus will not determine places at his right or his left; that is the prerogative of the Father. (See: Voice from heaven) (v. 40).
- Leadership in Jesus’ community means service (vv. 41-45).
These points will stand as a kind of rebuke to the bumptious brothers and a clarification for everyone else. Mark isn’t finished with them, though; to introduce this material, he gives us yet another question and answer. Jesus asks James and John if they can drink the cup that he will drink. We’re not at all surprised to hear them say: “We can!” (v. 39) They’re not called Sons of Thunder for nothing, it seems.
Here’s where we can come in to the story – if we dare. Mark wants us to shake our heads at the folly of the Boanerges Brothers; he wants us to stop and remember how the story ended, with their desertion of Jesus in the Garden. But he doesn’t want us to stop there. Rather, he invites us to pay even more attention to what Jesus is saying about discipleship, to grasp the heart of Jesus’ teaching on service and make it our own. This is what will distinguish us from the “rulers of this world” -- and even James and John, at least as we see them in the early days of their discipleship. Coming not to be served but to serve, Jesus will give his life as a ransom for many; with his words and the example of his life, he is inviting us to do the same. Can we drink that cup?
At first glance, seeing a child brought back to life or hearing a voice from heaven appears to have given the first disciples an advantage that we can never aspire to. But let’s not forget that we’ve got something that James and John didn’t have when they asked for those special seats in the Kingdom.
We have the Good News in full.
That news is this: Jesus suffered, died, and then rose from the dead on the third day. Death no longer has the final say – neither over him nor over us, the “many,” whom he ransomed with the deepest, most loving service possible. That is the cup he invites us to drink, not alone, but with him.
—Sr. Nuala Cotter, RA